Fireworks exploded over the Mississippi River just before noon Monday as Illinois and Missouri leaders met on the Eads Bridge, where they mingled shovels of dirt for the official groundbreaking for the new $670 million Mississippi River bridge.
"This is a bridge to our future," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat. "This is a bridge to more jobs and more economic opportunities."
Durbin joined a long roster of federal, state and local leaders to launch the official start of construction on the long-delayed span, which, when completed in late 2014, will be the fifth to join St. Clair County with downtown St. Louis.
The bridge is expected to generate $25 billion in new economic activity and 1,500 new jobs. It is also expected to revive a regional construction industry, which is suffering from a 25-percent unemployment rate, said Durbin, the Senate assistant majority leader.
"Well, we're going to start putting them back to work right away," he said.
The new four-lane bridge will be located just north of the Martin Luther King Bridge. It is designed to provide a safer, more-efficient route north and west from Illinois, providing Interstate 70 motorists with a straight shot across the river.
In this connection, the new bridge will ease congestion off the dangerously overcrowded Poplar Street Bridge, which today channels traffic for three major interstate highways -- interstates 64, 55 and 70 -- and handles 120,000 vehicles a day.
Also on hand were Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary; Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn; U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri; U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
Like the other dignitaries who spoke, Durbin praised the persistence and patience of Costello in securing the $239 million federal grant -- the biggest source of money for the project -- that kept the dream of building the bridge alive during years of disagreement between Illinois and Missouri over how to pay for the project.
"We would not be standing here today were it not for the determination of Jerry Costello," Durbin said. "Jerry led this effort."
Costello spoke proudly about how the new span will create jobs and improve the quality of life for people in the St. Louis region. He vowed to return in four years when the bridge is opened.
"I'm going to be right here cutting the ribbon on the new Mississippi River bridge," he said to applause.
The new crossing's potential importance to life on the river was punctuated by the periodic rumble of MetroLink trains running beneath the 136-year-old Eads span, and the blare of horns on barges pushing up and down the river's churning waters.
The mood during the groundbreaking could hardly have been more positive. It betrayed none of the rancor that arose two years ago when negotiations between the states had stalled over questions of how to pay for the bridge and who would build, maintain and operate it.
Two years ago, Missouri leaders were still pushing hard for a plan that called for most of the funding to come from motorist tolls, with ownership of the bridge being sold to a for-profit private partnership that would have discretion to raise tolls to pay off the bonds issued to finance the bridge.
Illinois leaders, however, pushed back hard against that idea, holding out for public control of the new bridge and against the tollway idea.
Ultimately, Illinois prevailed, though the final plan called Illinois to put $313 million and Missouri to pay $115 million. The disparity in funding is due to the fact that Illinois must pay for the reconstruction of several major highway interchanges.
LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, praised the spirit of cooperation that led both states to overcome political differences and agree on a plan to build the new bridge.
"Today is an example of the best of bipartisanship in America right here in the heartland of America," LaHood said. "In the job I have, there are no Democratic or Republican bridges or roads."
LaHood urged Illinois and Missouri leaders to name the new bridge after both Costello and Bond in recognition of their "enduring, enduring, enduring tenaciousness" in winning federal funding for the project.
In four years "let's come here and cut the ribbon on the new Costello-Bond Bridge," LaHood said. "Maybe it'll be in alphabetical order. Whatever. I'm delighted to be here."
Not everyone, however, was smiling at Monday's groundbreaking ceremony.
Immediately afterward, the United Congregations of the Metro-East held a press conference on the Eads span, during which its leaders called on Illinois and Missouri to hire more black workers for the project from nearby East St. Louis.
Troy Buchanan, the group's jobs task force chairman, said 100 East St. Louis area residents were in a construction jobs training program, but only 10 had been hired for the bridge project.
"That's totally unfair," Buchanan said. "That's not enough."
This story originally appeared in the Belleville News Democrat on April 19, 2010 and is available here: http://www.bnd.com/2010/04/19/1221728/eads-bridge-closed-for-ceremony.html